Send in the Clowns

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

The silver lining, of course, is that for at least the next three years we would be spared any new Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. There may be biopics aplenty concerning our governor apparent (inspirational fables about how an actor chiefly known for playing robots and killers became the Republican Party’s human face), but that’s another matter. These are understandably heady days for California’s GOP, which, after martyring a string of millionaire candidates over the past few elections, has finally discovered a way to capture a statewide office without having actually to win many votes.

It’s a no-lose proposition for the party — a Governor Schwarzenegger would be politically bulletproof because, even more so than the Terminator’s titanium-alloy superstructure, Arnold would be protected from criticism by that most Republican of coverings, Teflon. What’s not to like? His movies have never annoyed audiences with ideas or messages; Arnold’s vote for Proposition 187 notwithstanding, his off-the-boat accent sounds reassuring to immigrants and he’s “too rich” to betray the public interest. When it comes to media pampering, not even George W. “Uday” Bush has enjoyed the kind of parade marshal’s ride that lies in store for Schwarzenegger.

All this assumes, naturally, that Schwarzenegger ends up becoming governor, but, as we now know, election results are relative things and the recall bacchanalia has unfolded as the kind of fish-out-of-water story in which Schwarzenegger so effortlessly excels onscreen. Weekend polls indicate that even if all the candidates on the recall ballot vote for themselves, there are enough Californians not running for governor to give Schwarzenegger 25 percent of the vote — easily enough, under the new political math, to put him comfortably over the top. In any event, most of his opponents are already treading quicksand, including:


• Gary Coleman. The dinky former Diff’rent Strokes star may be an alternative celebrity candidate and presumed magnet for the black vote, but his vacillating positions on Colorado River basin issues have alienated key aggie constituencies.

• Cruz Bustamante. The “Bad Lieutenant” Governor can forget the African-American vote, period. He hasn’t recovered from his 2001 slip about “niggers” (made during an address to black trade unionists!), and one can only imagine what gaffes will occur whenever he tries to pronounce “Schwarzenegger.”

• Mary Carey. While exuding a sweet, porn-star-next-door aura, the co-star of Double D Dolls still prefers working
in girl-on-girl flicks and, according to both and the more circumspect, actually lives in Florida.

• Larry Flynt. While Hustler can be found in some of the state’s best washrooms and barbershops, its publisher will face a crushing backlash when voters realize he’s not Woody Harrelson.

• Arianna Huffington. Her accent isn’t as funny as Arnold’s, and she will never shake voter association with a family name that ranks with “Simon” and “Issa” as a synonym for “deluded rich fool.”


Some nervous voices on the political margins have predictably questioned the wisdom of dumping a governor chosen by an actual majority so soon after his election, as though Gray Davis’ term were some kind of TV show subject to midseason replacement. These hard-left elitists fear that a celebrity-dazzled public can no longer distinguish between fantasy and reality TV, that our embrace of Arnold only confirms national perceptions of California as a minimum-security insane asylum. Such alarmists are still living in the 20th century. They can learn much from wiser commentators — many on the left, themselves — visionaries who are able to discern only a robust populism in lynch mobs and who are untroubled by replacing ballot boxes with petitioners’ clipboards.

The doubters and electoral purists, with their second-time-as-farce judgments and obsession with majorities, fulsomely harp on the so-called double standard by which big media dismiss Hollywood celebrities preoccupied with world peace and the environment, while fawning over the aficionados of Hummers, golf and expensive cigars. What they don’t understand (or claim not to understand) is that Americans are people only too happy to give a conservative celebrity the chance for a second or even third career act. We are far less generous, though, toward entertainers who tell us to think, even if they don’t always tell us what to think.

Typical of this attitude is a letter about Hollywood liberals from the August issue of The Firing Line, which, published by the California Rifle and Pistol Association, serves as a kind of ideological journal for state Republicans; the writer’s complaint perfectly describes our impatience with make-believe heroes: “Pay careful attention to the way they handle firearms and even tools like pliers, screwdrivers and wrenches, how they lift with their back, or cut toward their hand with a knife, all the stupid mistakes real people are trained to avoid.”

Politically, Gray Davis has been cutting toward his wrists for years, and now he has finally slipped. Still, it’s hard to imagine an Earl Warren or Pat Brown having been recalled and replaced by, say, Johnny Weissmuller. Times have simply changed, and apart from his considerable personal deficits, Davis also suffers from sitting in the cross hairs of that change. His troubles didn’t begin with the energy crisis, nor do they date from 9/11 or the start of the recession. Instead, they began 25 years ago, on the day Californians passed Proposition 13 and set this state merrily down the road to permanent crisis. Today the governor risks being turned out of office by a resentful electorate far more passionate about movies and movie stars than government. October 7 may well prove how Nathanael West got it wrong: America’s forlorn and angry didn’t come to California to die, they came to vote.

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